STYLE : County Seats

We laugh at people who try to reinvent the wheel, but designers have been putting a fresh spin on the chair since the days of the Pharaohs. The top families of colonial Philadelphia and New York imported sets of chairs from London or commissioned local copies of the latest style, which filtered down to country workshops. Now we can all buy the same mass-produced chairs, coast to coast--or splurge on a hand-crafted original.

Chairs are the stars of a new exhibition opening today at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, "Common Forms, High Art: Three Centuries of American Furniture." Tables, cabinets, chests and sofas play supporting roles. The 200-plus pieces are drawn from the permanent collection, which is now the largest of any museum west of Chicago. "We've never before had the chance to display the full range of gifts and acquisitions," says Leslie Greene Bowman, who curated the show with former colleague Martha Drexler Lynn. "This is an opportunity to explore changing styles, the cultural context of change and the relationship between art and utility."

Most of these chairs were designed to reflect their owners' taste and status. Comfort was often disregarded: The Victorian Gothic hall chair (at right, second from top) is as spiky as a medieval church spire. At their best, period chairs satisfied the eye and the body, and achieved a timeless elegance. Colonial New England had a flourishing trade with China, and American splat-backed dining chairs were inspired by Chinese models. On display is a recent reinterpretation of these classics by California craftsman Robert Erickson (at left, second from top).

As Oscar Wilde remarked, "It is dangerous to be too modern; one becomes old-fashioned quite suddenly." The curators could have filled a gallery with yesterday's dated styles; instead, they focused on work that has stood the test of time. Angelenos can be proud that so many contemporary classics were designed, from the 1940s to the 1970s, by Charles and Ray Eames at their workshop in Venice. We've all sat in Eames chairs--at school and office, auditorium and airport terminal. They have become a part of the landscape, so familiar that they go unnoticed. A museum show reminds us that style, comfort and technical innovation can be fused in a satisfying whole.

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